Erdogan to open modern Turkish state’s first new church

Erdogan to open modern Turkish state’s first new church

ISTANBUL (AFP) : President Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned Sunday to inaugurate the first church built with government backing in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey’s 100-year history as a post-Ottoman state.

The Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church’s opening marks an important cultural and political moment for both Turkey and its powerful leader.

Erdogan drew widespread condemnation during his two-decade rule for converting ancient churches into mosques and making Islamic conservatism into a leading social force.

He has always countered that he was simply restoring the rights of pious Muslims in the staunchly secular republic founded by field marshal Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Erdogan laid the first stone for the church’s construction for Istanbul’s 17,000-strong Assyrian Christians in 2019.

“This is the first newly built church to open its doors since the founding of the Turkish Republic,” Istanbul Syriac Kadim Foundation president Sait Susin told AFP.

“We are happy.”

Assyrian Christianity traces its history to communities that lived in the first century AD in a region stretching from southeastern Turkey to Syria and Iraq.

Its main church moved from the Turkish city of Mardin to Damascus in 1932.

‘Love letter’

Susin separately told the Anadolu state news agency that some small churches had quietly opened in Turkey in the past 100 years.

But they did so “without official permission. It is the first time that a church has been officially built. This gives us great pride,” Susin said.

Erdogan drew international indignation for converting Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia — once the world’s largest cathedral — from a museum into a mosque in 2020.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO expressed “grave concern” at the time.

Erdogan brushed the criticism aside and did exactly the same thing to Istanbul’s Byzantine-era Chora Church later that same year.

Greece called that conversion “yet another provocation against religious persons everywhere”.

Erdogan came under particularly strong attacks at home for unveiling a new mosque in 2021 on Taksim Square — a central Istanbul gathering point built around a monument celebrating Ataturk’s foundation of the secular Turkish state.

The new Istanbul church can accommodate 750 worshippers and offer Erdogan a chance to prove his critics wrong.

Erdogan wavers in his speeches between robustly defending pious Muslims and embracing Turkey’s numerous communities.

He told supporters on the eve of the first round of May’s presidential election that he had written a “love letter” to Turkey.

“We have penned a love letter for every individual of our nation, without any distinction of origin or religion,” he told the crowd.

He ended that day by leading Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia mosque.

Erdogan edged out his secular rival in a runoff election two weeks later.